Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo

Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo uses the central image of a ‘kitchen table’ to connect all areas of life. Childhood, love, loss, war, adulthood, memory are all bound to events that take place at the table. It becomes the central image for Harjo, the table representing all of human endeavour.
Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo

Summary

Harjo uses the image of a ‘table’ within Perhaps the World Ends Here as a symbol of all the events a human could encounter. Beginning with the simple fact that one must eat to life, then expanding out through childhood, into adulthood, covering love and loss, even touching upon war, Harjo suggests that everything happens at a table. It encompasses the human spirit beautifully, the communal idea that lies with a ‘Table’ referencing our desire to be among good company. As quickly as life ends, it is over, with perhaps our last moment being at our kitchen table, savouring the ‘last sweet bite’.

Structure

Harjo writes Perhaps the World Ends Here across 11 free verse stanzas. Being written in this form, there is no distinct structural patterns, with the line lengths varying throughout. The differing lengths could be a metaphor to represent the different amounts of life a person gets to live, death coming randomly and at any time. The poem, inherently linked to the concept of life, reflects the random nature of humanity, its form mirroring the content.
You can read the full poem here.

Perhaps the World Ends Here Analysis

Stanza One

Joy Harjo begins Perhaps the World Ends Here by focusing on the ‘kitchen table’. By using a caesura after ‘table’, Harjo emphasises the noun, furthering the importance of the object. Indeed, the ‘kitchen table’ becomes Harjo’s central metaphor, and therefore is placed at a focal moment in this first line.
The very image of a ‘kitchen’ bares connotations of nurturing and food. These ideas follow later in the poem, with Harjo stating that at the most base and literal level, ‘tables’ represent the place where one eats. Indeed, ‘we must eat to live’, and therefore it is the base for all other things.
The blunt nature of the rest of this stanza, caesura splitting the line into two halves, depicts the reality of life. Indeed, ‘no matter what’, it is a fact that ‘we must eat to live’. There is no poetic intent behind these words, just a simple truth that then becomes the core of the rest of the poem. Everything can be avoided, but at some point we must come into contact with food and the ‘kitchen table’, therefore it acts as a fantastic metaphor.

Stanzas Two and Three

The semantics of naturing are extended into the second stanza, with the image of ’gifts of earth’ being used to describe food brought to the kitchen table. The act of eating becomes inherently connected to the land and nature, ‘gifts’ suggesting the importance of nature.
The focus on ‘chickens or dogs’ furthers this sense that nature is present at the kitchen table. Although ‘chase[d]’ away, they continue to have a role in the poem, nature being ever-present in Harjo’s narrative.
It is at this point within Perhaps the World Ends Here that Harjo introduces the image of ‘babies’. Although not seemingly too important, this moment in the poem provides an important contrast to later stanzas, therefore developing an image of a complete human life passing before our eyes.

Stanzas Four, Five & Six

Harjo suggests that ‘what it means to be human’ is something on which ‘children are given instruction’. This relates to the passing on of morals, ideas and views from parent to child. Children are the future, and the morals they are taught to keep close define not only their lives, but the lives of those they interact with. It is across the table, slowly permeating through their childhoods, where they learn what it means to ‘be human’, how it feels to care for others.
Harjo reflects on memories of the past, all these things flowing in to what it means to be human and exist within a community. The poet focuses on the act of ‘recall[ing] enemies and the ghosts of lovers’, recounting the past a way of educating and sharing life experience with others. The metaphor of the ‘kitchen table’ supplies a narrative of warm, family-orientated community, with this extension into stories of the past further showing the durability of the image.
The nostalgia for the past Harjo instigates at this stage in the poem extends to the idea of ‘dreams’. They, too, are happy and supportive, being framed through the naturing image of ‘coffee’ and then personified as having ‘their arms around our children’. The central idea of the poem remains focused on nurturing, happy, positive images of the community. The personification of dreams is no different here, with Harjo adding to the thankful atmosphere of the poem.

Stanzas Seven – Eleven

The ‘table’ metaphor, representing life and all things within it, go through stages of ‘rain’ and stages of ‘sun’. The use of these weather conditions acts as pathetic fallacy for the emotions of the people living, reflecting happiness and sadness. Despite the exact emotion, the image of the ‘table’ is always there, strongly offering a representation of support.
The beginning of life, ‘birth on this table’, and the end, ‘our parents for burial’ all stem from the central image of the ‘table’. Birth, childhood, adulthood, and death all compound into one image of the shared experiences that happen around a table.
The focus on the personal pronoun ‘We’ further classifies the sense of community Harjo is depicting, all these people she has come into contact with and known throughout her life being combined through her use of the pronoun.
The title of the poem takes its name from words in the final stanza of Perhaps the World Ends Here. Although the ‘world will end’, Harjo argues that at least humanity will have had moments of connection within their communities, around ‘tables’ that act as representations of these life events. Friends, family and loved ones all ‘laughing and crying’ as life continues around the ‘kitchen table’, moments that define a life happening at these seemingly unimportant objects. Eventually, the ‘sweet bite’ of life will come to its end – but we can be thankful for all the moments of connection we have had until that moment.
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